On the first college football Saturday of 2018, we wrote a little something about the six quarterbacks – at three schools – who would shape the season. On Tuesday, BetOnline released its Heisman odds for the 2019 season, and five of those six are at the head of the list. Difference is, they’re no longer clustered. They’ve scattered.
Trevor Lawrence, who was Clemson’s No. 2 quarterback on the Saturday before Labor Day, is an entrenched No. 1 who led the Tigers to an epochal upset of Alabama in the national championship game. He’s your 2019 Heisman favorite, duh. The second choice is Tua Tagovailoa, named Bama’s starting quarterback against Louisville on Sept. 1 and who finished second in the 2018 Heisman voting. The third choice is Jalen Hurts, the dislodged Alabama starter who announced Wednesday he’s taking his talents to Oklahoma.
At 12/1 odds are three running backs, D’Andre Swift of Georgia among them, and the Bulldogs’ No. 1 and 2 quarterbacks from last season, and here we pause for effect. Jake Fromm is 23-5 as a collegiate starter and led Georgia to the national title game in January 2018. Justin Fields hasn’t started a collegiate game. And yet: They’re both handed the same Heisman odds, even though it’s not certain Fields, who has transferred to Ohio State, will be deemed eligible to play next season.
This isn’t exactly breaking news, but the upper crust of college football has become like the NFL, meaning quarterback-driven, with a twist that not almost no pro teams have to navigate. Most franchises have a clear idea as to who their No. 1 is. (Even Philadelphia, although Nick Foles is the most useful No. 2 ever.) The biggest college programs sign big-name quarterbacks on top of one another, figuring events will sort things out. Events invariably do, although not always in the way you’d guess.
In consecutive years, Georgia signed Jacob Eason, Fromm and then Fields. Only one is still in Athens, and it’s the lowest-rated of the bunch. (Eason and Fields were 5-stars; Fromm was a 4-star.) Eason got hurt. Fromm stepped in. Eason healed but couldn’t unseat the new incumbent. Eason transferred to Washington. Fields enrolled. Some believed he’d jump ahead of Fromm by midseason. Didn’t happen. Didn’t come close to happening. Fields didn’t play in the Sugar Bowl. Indeed, his last snap as a Bulldog was to receive the fateful fake punt in the SEC championship.
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A 4-star recruit, Hurts wasn’t expected to claim the No. 1 job on arrival. Indeed, the 5-star Blake Barnett started Alabama’s first game of 2016. Hurts started the next week and held the job for two years. With the Tide trailing Georgia and Fromm 13-0 at halftime, Nick Saban changed quarterbacks and saw Tagavailoa throw the winning touchdown pass in overtime. Bama had gone 24-2 with Hurts as No. 1, but he wouldn’t start another game. (Though he did replace the injured Tagavailoa and engineer another comeback victory over Georgia in the same Mercedes-Benz Stadium, this time with the SEC on the line. And now Hurts is headed for Oklahoma, home of the past two Heisman winners, both of them transfers.)
Kelly Bryant, who’d waited his turn behind Deshaun Watson, led Clemson to the playoff in 2017. He started the first four games of 2018 ahead of Lawrence. The Tigers won all four. Bryant was demoted after a victory at Georgia Tech. He has since transferred to Missouri. We mention him largely because he’s the only one of those six quarterbacks at Clemson/Bama/Georgia discussed in this space 4 ½ months ago who’s not listed as a Heisman possibility.
We note, however, that the tag “Heisman candidate” is ephemeral. In theory, every college player is a Heisman candidate, and the rush to identify the best of the best can lead to inexact conclusions. In July 2015, Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson – who’d spent two years behind Nick Marshall, another Georgia transfer – was listed as co-third favorite by Bovada. Johnson’s odds were 10/1. Both Alabama’s Derrick Henry, who would win the award, and Clemson’s Watson, who’d finish third, were at 16/1. Johnson lasted three games as Auburn’s starter before being displaced by Stan White.
There’s nothing to suggest that Fields will be the next Jeremy Johnson. Almost everyone agrees that the guy who couldn’t beat out Fromm is nonetheless a bigger talent than Fromm, and there’s a chance that – given the absence of a holdover in Columbus with the exit of Dwayne Haskins for the NFL – he’ll do great things for Ohio State the next few years. But he’ll need a waiver to play next season, and not all waiver requests are granted, and he won’t be playing for Urban Meyer, who had a way with quarterbacks, but for Ryan Day, unproven as a non-interim head coach.
Anyone who follows sports knows that much of the fun is in gauging/guessing potential. Still, it’s fascinating that Fromm, who has manifestly proved himself as a college quarterback, is assigned the same (however spurious) Heisman odds as Fields, who has not. And if Fields should lead the Buckeyes to a playoff victory over his former team, there’d be no consoling Bulldog fans who’ve already seen Georgians like Cam Newton and Marshall and Watson lead their school to glory.
Still, wouldn’t be something if, once Tagovailoa splits for the NFL, the three 2020 Heisman finalists were Lawrence of Cartersville, Fromm of Warner Robins and Fields of Kennesaw? Welcome to Georgia, where we grow peaches … and quarterbacks.